From the start, the rationale by which voters would have to choose between Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Valley Village) was somewhat murky. The two congressmen have very similar voting records, and, as far as pro-Israel voters were concerned, both Jewish legislators are considered reliable advocates for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
But starting in the summer of 2011 — when supporters of the two candidates and others were wringing their hands over the fact that neither of these two men appeared willing to budge from the newly drawn 30th Congressional District — the race began to look less like a possibility and more like an inevitability, and members of the Jewish community in California and beyond, and participants in the Democratic Party in the San Fernando Valley, in particular, had to start choosing sides.
[UPDATE: Sherman beats Berman, 60-40]
The majority of the congressional delegation lined up behind Berman; most local elected officials threw their support behind Sherman. Major pro-Israel donors overwhelmingly backed Berman, who is the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Sherman got backing from a number of union groups, in part because of his stance against free-trade agreements.
Still, part of what made the race between Berman and Sherman so unusual was that while all elections have consequences, the consequences of this one were clear even before the first voters in the newly drawn 30th Congressional District began casting their ballots this fall: one long-serving Jewish Democratic incumbent would be leaving Congress at the end of 2012.
The many Latino voters in the East San Fernando Valley who had been waiting for at least a decade for a chance to elect a Latino to represent the Valley in Congress, saw that historic event take place this Election Day, when Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas won the new 29th seat without facing a challenge.
But for other constituents in this region — which is predominantly Democratic and has dense populations of Jews — even if one congressman might win, everyone felt a bit disappointed at losing one of the two congressmen.
On Election Night, though, the mood in Sherman’s headquarters was buoyant. Even before the first results came in, staffers were calling the gathering for their supporters on Election Night a “victory party.” And when the first results came through shortly after 8 p.m., showing that Sherman had taken just under 59 percent of about 35,000 ballots cast by early absentee voters, while Berman took about 41 percent, a cheer went up from the crowd.
“Sherman! Sherman! Sherman!” chanted the congressman’s supporters as one TV reporter after another interviewed Sherman.
Sherman struck a magnanimous tone, casting an optimistic eye toward the future.
“I have a lot of friends who have supported Howard, and he has a lot of friends who have supported me,” Sherman said on Election Night. “And I’m sure we’ll all be friends tomorrow.”
This long, expensive and very closely watched campaign was anything but friendly, though.
From its earliest stages, Sherman had been releasing polls showing him to be in the lead, propelled in part because he had represented 60 percent of the newly drawn 30th Congressional District in the West San Fernando Valley over the previous decade. Sherman lobbed attacks at Berman over a variety of issues, ranging from the independent Super PACs that supported Berman to the foreign trips Berman had taken during his three decades as a congressman.
Berman ran a primarily positive campaign in the primary, but when Sherman came in first among the eight candidates on the ballot in June, beating Berman by 10 percentage points, Berman shifted his campaign tactics in an effort to pick up ground in November.
With a new campaign manager at the helm, Berman trained his sights on attacking Sherman. If his slogan for the primary was “Berman is effective,” the last five months of the campaign have been more “Sherman hasn’t done anything in Congress.”
Early on Election Night, Berman headquarters was mostly subdued, with the biggest cheer going up when the election was called for President Obama. With a truck serving In-N-Out burgers out front, and news trucks in back, Berman circulated among the volunteers, giving hugs and receiving praise. Supporters checked their phones and other devices for updates, following not just the congressional contest, but also the fate of a few statewide ballot initiatives and the few states that had not been called for either Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
And around 10 p.m., when a young group of volunteers came into the room chanting “Howard! Howard! Howard!” Berman demurred, waving off the evening’s master of ceremonies.
“A few more minutes,” Berman said.